March 31, 2014

Traveling: With Reservations ... or Not?



In Without Reservations, Alice Steinbach wrote “I have no agenda, here I can fall into whatever rhythm presents itself."





Sometime during my early 50s, I  decided that if I couldn't travel, I could at least become an extraordinarily well-read armchair traveler. Couldn't travel? You know, the usual suspects: no time, when time no money, but most often neither time nor money.  Having always been a reader, armchair travel was a satisfying, achievable goal. Before too long I focused (not at all exclusively) on women travelling, and discovered Alice Steinbach. A journalist at the Baltimore Sun, her two books are totally engaging and enjoyable. Perhaps, if the reader is in the proper frame of mind as I was, inspirational even.



So, as I pondered this post, the second about the process of planning a tour, I took her book off the shelf, then googled Steinbach, hoping to discover something written more recently. Sadly, the news I found was that she had died two years ago, in March 2012. I thought she was younger than me, though I have no idea why, and was surprised to learn that she was 78.  Older or younger, I am at an age when death no longer surprises. It is a shame that there are no more of her books to discover, and I whole-heartedly recommend both Without Reservations and Educating Alice.

Travel. Planning a bike tour. The question at hand is: without, or with, reservations?  In a recent post I mentioned that Paris-Nice could be a challenging theme for my 2014 tour, and likely fun. The mileage, even incorporating some sideways explorations and col (mountain pass) chasing, is workable if I am able to arrange enough days away from my life here. Questions quickly arise: camp, or chambres d'hôte, hotels? If not camping, reserve rooms, or travel day by day? Those two answers determine a great deal about the experience of any trip.

With reservations: the risk of misjudging difficulty, and either of too short days, arriving early in the day at my destination with miles and miles of riding left in my legs ... or forced into grueling slogs, possibly in miserable weather, with too much climbing. The probability of needing to move on just when getting to know a place.




On the other hand, without reservations: the risk of missing out on wonderful people at delightful table d'hotes that are full, needing instead to stay at characterless, often more expensive lodging. If camping, arriving at a campground to find it closed. Odd in France, we think, but the risk when camping of arriving in villages with neither restaurants nor food stores at the end of the ride, going to sleep and beginning the next day hungry.

The freedom promised by traveling without reservations is so very alluring. Particularly enjoy an area? Stay longer to explore. Meet engaging people with great ideas? Remain a while longer to visit. A fabulous concert, by a favorite band, or art exhibit, or festival coming up? Don't leave quite yet. A different, more beautiful route recommended? Just take it.



But equally, there is something compelling, focused and perhaps energetic about a route, an itinerary, a here to there. Moving along purposefully with a goal. One place to another. I admit to being more than a little goal oriented. Meaningfully or not, it gives purpose and direction to the structure of my days. I like not having to decide each day what to do, but rather staying with the program. Something about having a fixed schedule, knowing where I will be sleeping, seems to open the space in my head to more completely immerse myself into the day itself. There are always surprises, unexpected events, minor route alterations along the way.


No reservations. That footloose, no expectations, not over-planned aspect has great appeal. I mean, that's what travel is really about, isn't it? At least that's what a lot of travelers say. No deadlines, no expectations, no itinerary. Perhaps a romantic appeal.



But I'm me. I do have something of an agenda, a general route, travel by bike. I do have to make a plane back to my life here, and that plane will have a very specific, non-negotiable departure date. My family, coworkers and friends here deserve and expect to have me back on time. But the French trains, you suggest, couldn't you always catch up on your schedule by using them?

True enough. I am remembering my 2009 trip with my husband, when we thought just that. My French was truly, truly minimal and terrible. But enough to call ahead, day by day, to make room reservations based on a rough schedule. I learned that so very many places were full. I learned the phrase, "Desolée madame, nous sommes complet" by heart.



I promise, lodgings in rural areas that would be described as inexpensive, charming, historic, and clean as a whistle, fill up way ahead of time.Most particularly  those serving dinner. My mental image is so clear: it was 2012, after a 45-mile, mountainous  ride and a shower, sitting  on the patio, chatting with a couple from Paris, enjoying a glass of wine and the view. Seeing riders on loaded bikes inquire at the front desk, leave, stop again, inquire across the street at the only other hotel. Then leave town and continue along the road presumably to the next town, about 15 miles away. I appreciated my reservation.

In 2010, remembering our 2009 experience with limited lodging availability, I took a tent and sleeping bag, solo, planning to enjoy the freedom of camping.  Inexpensive lodging pretty much guaranteed. The opportunity to meet like-minded people in campgrounds. That might be true in August. Or July. What I often found in early June was closed or empty campgrounds. On the other hand, that same trip there was  the night my campground was located on a farm (there is a program in France of camping on farms) where there were perhaps 25 sites. Three of those sites were occupied: mine, the German couple who invited me for dinner and the couple from Perpignan who invited me to breakfast. It was such fun.




Thirty-some years ago, a dear friend said to me "Suze, you are the only person I know who thinks it's fun to walk uphill carrying heavy objects." That about backpacking in the northern Rockies. Now, thirty-some years later, I don't think it's fun at all riding uphill, carrying heavy panniers, to high cols in the rain, fog, or worse snow. If my booked reservations are in that high town, or over that pass, I will have to slog through it. The flexibility then that comes with no reservations can be game-changing. Snow, fog, heavy rain in the high Alps in late September or October? No reservations? Don't climb that pass, ride around, follow more closely a typical Paris-Nice race route, which of course doesn't traverse the high Alps. That race is in March, the roads are snowy.

2014. More miles this time than the last two trips. Some possible high altitudes in the Alps. Perhaps later in the season. The question remains ... with, or without, reservations?

How do you tour?


27 comments:

  1. Avez-vous des réserves, madame?
    Non, je veux vraiment rester ici!

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    1. Larry, Quelle bonne surprise ... tu as gardé un grand secret! J'en ai eu aucun idée. ;<)

      Mais, vraiment sans réservations, toi?

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  2. Reservations. And expect some changes for spontaneity or circumstance. Maybe cut costs a bit to allow for flexibility in case you want to book a different place and will be covering two charges. Most times plans can be changed, and it all works out. Plus I remember the French Alps as being a difficult place to find accommodations even with reservations. I guess it depends on your route, yet I know traveling solo adds up.

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    1. Hi Karen,

      I think you're absolutely right, and I agree, I've been pleasantly surprised at how often plans can be changed without penalty. Also, thanks for the hint about the Alps, that's good to know.

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  3. As I read your post I think of the saying, “Plans mean everything and Plans mean nothing”. Case in point, when I rode from Toronto Canada to Ft Lauderdale Florida back in 1981 I had carefully mapped out every day’s destination and hotel options and when we missed our destination on the first day, we threw out the initial plan and rode by the seat of our lycra shorts for the remaining 1500 miles and had the time of our lives. I wouldn't have spent a night in jail in South Carolina and added a great life story had everything been planned to a “T”. Enjoy the Freedom....Enjoy the Ride…..Coach

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    1. Hi Coach, Couldn't agree more about the plans mean everything and plans mean nothing part, aptly said. Now I need to hear about the night in jail!

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    2. It's a long story that I'll share with you one day....but suffice it to say, there's always somewhere to sleep even when there's no hotels, motels or camp sites. I think the Sheriff (think Smokie and the Bandit) felt sorry for us after riding 120 miles in 100F+ hot, humid South Carolina weather. We're just glad we were the only one's in the jail and he didn't lock the doors to our cells.

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    3. Ha! And here I imagined you stopped for speeding in a small town. Unconventional (for us, I think) lodging: not only jails. A good friend raised in France has urged me to remember that abbayes, monasteries wil always find a room for a traveler in need.

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  4. I am too willing to imagine the worst so I like to have my tour booked with a comfortable bed at the end of the day. It is all too easy to find quite a long way between beds in rural France. Camping holds no charms for me any more as I am too old and rickety for uneven ground and too idle to carry the gear with me anyway.

    Also, and this may be the main reason, I am a mapaholic and love the time spent poring over maps while plotting and planning a route and I enjoy putting the organisation into place. All this makes me a sad person but a happy sad person. Good luck with your decisions and may they all turn out to be felicitous in the extreme.

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    1. Hi Tootlepedal,

      Not only a comfortable bed (well, I've had some not comfortable at all, and some I truly suspect of bedbugs) but ... a warm shower! An indoor meal! I too love maps, planning, and even sorting out lodging options. Why a sad person?

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  5. With spouse: reservations. Without spouse: no reservations. But that's just me.

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    1. Camping, or no? Let's see how could I make the analogy for me? With spouse no reservations (2 people) or with spouse reservations (he doesn't care for cycling as it is!)

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  6. Lightweight tent, sleeping bag and mattress is cheap insurance against closed accommodations when tired legs and frazzled nerves are the difference between having a good time and wishing I'd carried the extra weight. My load tallies in at 7-8 lbs for all three items. Not bad, really. When we traveled by bike in Provence, Sept. 2012 we had an exciting, general itinerary that changed mid-way due to unexpectedly difficult train/bus travel that did not accept bicycles. We skipped the train hassles, hours spent in a station, and decided that riding bikes trumped everything. We had the best time, once that angst was behind us and rode through other off the beaten path towns instead, which turned out to be much more fun.

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    1. Having companions sure beats loneliness in closed campground. Make your hotel reservations! I don't know the region you are traveling through. Would it make you happy to bring sleeping bag along for emergencies? Another thing I've thought about is a ground pad and highly stuffable down parka that could double as covering in a pinch.

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    2. Hey Suze, do you know about Warm Showers? They are worldwide now and specifically host bike tourists.

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    3. Hi Annie, My Cévennes trip was much like that. I love my little lightweight tent, though by the time I add up the gear and the extra panniers it is more weight than that. With or without, I'll be off the beaten path... it's partly the weight with long steep climbs, and I suppose partly being solo that makes me consider twice. Not so much the safety issue, as that generally I meet more people in B+Bs and little hotels. Campgrounds can be pretty empty off season and outside high tourism areas. That said, I admit that I have missed that little tent sometimes without it.

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    4. Hi again Annie, I messed the thread of this up by trying to correct a typo in my first response. Oh well.

      I am just starting to register to join Warm Showers. It sounds like it might be a fun way to meet people, and I think there are some members in southern France. Have you used them?

      I will at least mostly make reservations, I'm sure, and then either take camping gear for backup, or plan alternative routes at the Alps end. It all depends on when (and for how long) I can be away from here. That isn't altogether up to me, and I won't know for a few weeks.
      Thanks for your thoughts and ideas!

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    5. I've been a member for years and have hosted travelers every summer at our home. I used the service once, in Maine. I love camping and being on my own schedule, however I wouldn't hesitate to use the service when needed.

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    6. Thanks, good to know! And, should I ever again be lucky enough to find myself on bike in Burlington...:-)

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  7. Lovely, interesting post that has me wondering about so many things... When I was younger, and I mean much younger, I was far more able to travel at the drop of a hat and "without reservations" - of any sort. But injuries from a few years back make roughing it painful. I need an actual bed! And I admit, I like spontaneity within the framework of a semi-planned agenda. That said, I like going to one or two places and lingering, wandering, taking it as it comes. I don't care for trying to cram many places into a short time span and I don't like a forced schedule.

    Armchair travel. That has me reflecting. I've been dying to get back to Paris for such a long time, and... as you said yourself... time, money, obligations... I don't know that it's going to happen any time soon or when / if ever... Perhaps I ought to make more time for armchair travel.

    (And merci for stopping by my place! I'm going to send Heather a virtual thank you note!)

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    1. Hello D.A.,

      Thanks for visiting, and taking the time to comment! I defiitely like an actual bed, but I think I'm coming to the realization that what I "need" is to know where I'm going to be staying ahead of time, instead of a stressful late-in-the-day scramble to figure it out.

      If you want to armchair travel Paris, there are shelves and shelves and yet more of books about Paris...some excellent, some not so much.

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  8. Hi Suze

    As a couple with bikes, we reserve at a b&b (preferred) or hotel for the first night or two. Then we let serendipity takes its course and take 30 min in the late afternoon to book a place to stay that night. This works well because we almost never travel in the high season and b) the last few years we've taken to renting a car with our bikes, then staying in one spot and doing several day rides. Obviously, with a car, it's much easier to move on to the next town.

    On my own (which hasn't been for a LONG time but which I'm hoping to rectify next month), it's tenting all the way, baby. It's an easy decision since my two solo ventures were in high season when all campgrounds are open with no risk of single-digit (nevermind minus 0) nighttime temps.

    But back then couchsurfing & airbnb didn't exist, and I hadn't heard of warmshowers.org either. And my back didn't give me as much grief as it does now. So when I head into Germany next month, I'll be bringing a tent but also will consider staying with others, as much for conversation as for comfort.

    Did you visit France already this year?

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    1. Hi La Canadienne,

      I haven't yet been to France, and it is on my to-do list to email you! Thanks for your comment. I look forward to camping again, but it won't be this trip. Have a great tour in Germany! I am at snmcycling@gmail.com. Maybe you could drop me an email, so I have your address and then I'll write you... now I'll go try to find it again. Did you go to the Pyrenees for l'Etape?

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  9. You attract so many nice people with good advice. You will no doubt have a good time.

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    1. Bonsoir Monsieur Charnamit,

      I am fortunate indeed to have these wonderful readers and friends... some in person, some so far only via the internet, and the advice is invaluable.

      Suze

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